By Samantha Tatro
Carmel Valley actor Robert J. Townsend stumbled upon musical theatre by complete accident.
One afternoon in high school, Townsend’s best friend stayed after school to audition for the school musical “Something’s Afoot.” Townsend, who usually got a ride home with his friend, decided to wait for the ride anyway.
He ended up auditioning for the school musical that year, but he had nothing to sing, so he sang “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” – and he got cast.
“I was terrible, terrible, there’s a video on Facebook. Terrible, I can’t even believe I did the show,” Townsend said. “But that was the first time, and I just sort of got bit by the bug.”
That was the start of what would become a global career in theatre, from singing with the Opera Pacific in Orange County to singing in Brazil to his current endeavor, playing the clean-cut dad Dan Goodman in San Diego Musical Theatre’s “Next to Normal.”
“I always call it my accidental career,” Townsend said, adding that he spent his college summers working on productions before eventually getting paid for his work.
“All these things kind of just kept happening and there was no moment [he knew he wanted to become an actor], until I suddenly found out I was in love with performing,” the Framingham, Mass. native said.
The actor, fresh off the Jersey Boys National Tour, has been home for less than a month and is already in rehearsal for San Diego Musical Theatre’s production of “Next to Normal,” opening Sept. 26.
The Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning musical tackles mental illness and crisis through the eyes of one family and its mother, Diana Goodman, as she struggles to cope with her bipolar disorder. Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s book and lyrics transform the mundanely of suburban life and the struggles of dealing with loss into a riveting powerhouse contemporary musical.
Townsend initially undertook the challenges of the musical a year and a half ago, when he and two other cast members – Bets Malone and Eddie Egan – were cast in the show together in La Mirada. The producers saw the production and “fell in love” with the show, Townsend said, and decided to bring it down to San Diego. Townsend, Malone and Egan were asked to come back and reprise their roles.
“It’s not an easy show to get through,” Townsend said. “It’s an emotional journey, it’s a physical journey. It’s a demanding show to do, but I love the piece so much. It came to me the first time at a time when I needed to be able to take that trip every day to deal with some things in my personal life, you know, some loss in my family, and I found it so helpful…It was something I needed.”
To take on the complexity of mental illness, the entire cast has been doing extensive research on the subject prior to the show. That includes watching videos of people going through electroconvulsive therapy and reading extensive documentation about mental illnesses and behavioral disorders.
Townsend said he found it daunting when he approached the musical for the first time, like many people who might read about it before seeing it.
“This isn’t a tragic, tragic musical, it’s a realistic musical – it’s about real life,” Townsend said. “People come in and they say, ‘A musical about bipolar [disorder]? That sounds like the worst idea ever.’ It’s not. It’s full of humor and you cry and it’s full of beautiful emotions and I think that, if nothing else, it makes you think.”
Townsend called the musical, and his experience with it, cathartic. The opportunity to come back and work with it, he said, allows him to revisit the material at a different point in his life after a period of personal growth.
“One of the biggest reactions from people who saw the show before was they wanted to call somebody they loved when they were done,” Townsend said. “It makes you want to reach out to people and connect.”
Though the material was daunting, he said, it is ultimately rewarding for him as an actor and for the audience.
“It’s not feel good, but it’s feel everything,” Townsend said. “I just figured this out the other day, it’s something I learned since last time. It’s not feel good but it’s feel everything. You will feel good. But you’ll also feel sad, you’ll feel confused and angry and all those things — but it’s worth it. It’s worth it to feel all those things.”
Townsend smiled over coffee.
“Just remind your readers not to be scared of it,” Townsend said with a laugh.
San Diego Musical Theatre’s production of “Next to Normal” features Bets Malone as Diana Goodman, Robert J. Townsend as Dan Goodman, Eddie Egan as Gabriel “Gabe” Goodman, Lindsay Joan as Natalie Goodman, Eric Parker as Henry, and Geno Carr as Dr. Madden. The production is directed by Nick DeGruccio and musically directed by Don Le Master.
The musical opens Sept. 26 and runs through Oct. 12. Show times will be Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Readers can purchase tickets by calling the administrative office at (858) 560-5740 or by going online at